Talk Shows Pour Fire On Immigration Debate

Talk shows pour fire on immigration debate

Conservatives more organized than Spanish radio

August 7, 2007
Staff Reporter/
Chicago Sun Times

Depending on what side of the debate you're on, conservative talk radio shows are either to thank or to blame for the collapse of the Senate's most recent attempt at immigration reform.

The backlash against the Rush Limbaughs, Laura Ingrahams and the Sean Hannitys of the broadcast world came just weeks before last Saturday's 20th anniversary of the FCC decision to abolish the Fairness Doctrine, which had required broadcasters to balance conservative and liberal views in their daily broadcasts.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and other legislators maneuvered to bring the issue back to the fore, with little result, but they are vowing to keep fighting for changes. Meanwhile, Chicago broadcasters are digging in — and speaking out about how they will use their air-time to shape the immigration debate in the months to come.

“I started out going after corrupt politicians, then the Minuteman Project and the immigration issue took on a life of its own,” said Rick Biesada, a truck driver and director of the Chicago Minuteman Project who hosts a weekly one-hour show on Elmhurst-based WJJG-AM (1530). “Talk radio is a conservative medium. People listening are people like me — people who drive a truck for a living listen to the news.”

Hounding politicians
Others working within earshot of a radio are listening in Spanish, and while the reach and influence of Spanish language radio has been credited with mobilizing the immigrant rights movement, its impact on the national debate has been minimal.

“We need to find a way for this community to talk back,” said Jorge Mujica, the leader of the March 10 Movement, which is credited with organizing thousands of people in various marches over the last year. He's a frequent Spanish language radio guest but says, “I don't feel comfortable calling [an English language talk radio show] if I know someone's going to mock me.”

“It's a serious thing and I'm not up-to-date in the English media,” he said. “It's like a separate reality.”

Mujica pointed to the difference between the loosely connected Spanish language media and the high level of organization most conservative talk show hosts bring to the table. “They provide their listeners with names, phone numbers and e-mails to call politicians. Then it becomes a reality for the politicians,” Mujica said.

Rather than relying on national radio shows to reach local people, Pilsen's RadioArte sends original bilingual programming to about 430,000 people in a 14-mile radius. “We are a response to some of the rhetoric both in conservative talk radio and some Spanish language shows,” said general manager Silvia Rivera. “There is some responsibility that comes when you're talking about mobilizations and how issues are covered.”

Effect on elections
Her response to the ire and — some say — racism toward illegal immigrants is that it's just the newest hot topic. “It's immigration now, but before it was gay/lesbian rights and before that abortion,” said Rivera. “It's sort of a David and Goliath battle.”

Responding to oft-hurled accusations of racism, conservative WLS morning host Jerry Agar, himself a Canadian immigrant, says people complaining about such shows just didn't like them to begin with. “In a debate, [critics] should be pointing out what is wrong with my position instead of talking about racism,” said Agar. “If you've reduced yourself to just calling me a racist, then I've already won.”

With the Senate bill behind them, conservative talk show hosts, unfazed by lingering talk about revival of the Fairness Doctrine, are turning their focus to supporting local anti-immigration ordinances and shaping the upcoming elections. “Next we want to vote the pro-open-border Republicans out of office,” said Biesada.